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St. Patrick’s Day Ceol: sparkling high-tech home for trad music

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner Who could have anticipated that a Dublin businessman with substantial real-estate, restaurant, and residential health-care holdings would take the initiative to erect the finest showcase for traditional music in Ireland?

"There are people who deliver Irish music in the same way other people deliver Irish pubs, in a plastic, paddywhackery way for tourists, and it seems dishonest to me," said Terry Devey.

Devey is director of the Devey Group, which bought 350,000 square feet of space in Dublin’s Smithfield Village, between Arran Quay and King Street North, and built Chief O’Neill’s Hotel. Inside this sleekly modern hotel is a trad-music center not yet a year old, Ceol.

"I’m a music lover," Devey said. "My dad had a jazz band, and I went to music school for years. Even when I became a structural engineer, I never gave up my love for it. One day I went into a pub in Temple Bar and heard traditional music done poorly. I thought, Why? That’s when I thought of doing it right."

One of the first people Devey contacted about "doing it right" was Harry Bradshaw, a longtime Radio Telefís Éireann producer and archivist as well as an internationally recognized authority on traditional music.

"I sometimes feel my whole career has been an apprenticeship for Ceol," Bradshaw said over lunch in Chief O’Neill’s Café Bar. "When Terry came to me with his idea, I told him it would probably cost a fortune. He didn’t blink.’The money is my responsibility,’ he told me. ‘You ensure it’s done right.’ "

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No stinting on quality

It took two years for Ceol to go from concept to reality. More than £5 million was expended on just the content, not the physical structure, of Ceol, which opened last April in Chief O’Neill’s. Costing nearly £60 million, the overall complex has 73 hotel rooms, 220 apartments, 15 penthouses, a gym, two additional restaurants, along with various new shops on adjacent Duck Lane, and the 175-foot Jameson Whiskey chimney tower that dates from 1895 and is topped by a two-tier, glass observation deck offering a panoramic view of Dublin.

Overseeing all the music in Ceol is its artist and repertoire manager, Harry Bradshaw, who splits his time between it and RTÉ. He formed a panel of experts, including ex-Chieftains member Seán Potts and set-dancing master Terry Moylan, to provide creative input.

"Their job was to see that all areas were properly covered," Bradshaw said. "It would have been too easy to fall into the trap of a one-man vision of things, something I wanted to avoid."

Taking me on a cook’s tour of Ceol, Bradshaw mentioned that there are three venues for performance — the main auditorium, the White Room, and a ground-floor area for sessions near the café bar — all of which he’s been putting to good use. Among the musicians who have performed or will perform at Ceol are Kieran Hanrahan, the Kevin Glackin Group with guest Johnny Moynihan, John Regan, Sliabh Notes, Sonny Condell, At the Racket, the Swallow’s Tail Céilí Band, Mary Bergin with Joe and Antoinette McKenna, and Dervish.

The Dec. 11 concert by the Sligo band Dervish, for example, drew more than 800 people. "It was a fantastic night," Bradshaw said. "The place was absolutely stuffed."

Much of the business for Ceol is prebooked, with many school groups coming in for guided tours.

"Teachers realize that the potential for giving their students a strong introduction to Irish traditional music is just too good to pass by," Bradshaw said. "You can spend two hours or two days in here. It’s the visitor who determines how deeply he wants to explore."

Open from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 7 p.m. Sundays, Ceol offers more than 20 hours of interactive information and learning, all presented in a thoroughly entertaining, engaging way. There are no fewer than 11 discrete areas on the origins and evolution of Irish traditional music, starting with a humble coatroom.

Bathed in an almost spectral light, gray-plaster coats hang along a wall, conveying the feeling of being inside a small country house where visitors doff their jackets before a seisiún begins. Projected onto the coats and rippling across them are four five-minute montages of musicians singing or playing, some drawn from archival footage but many more taken from six new film sessions organized by Bradshaw.

The performers are the cream of Ireland’s traditional music community, a mix of the famous and the lesser-known but not lesser-talented. They include Galway sisters Sarah and Rita Keane singing "A Stór Mo Chroí"; Belfast’s Desi Wilkinson and West Cork’s Conal Ó Grada together playing flutes on a polka associated with legendary Leitrim flutist John McKenna; pipers Willie Clancy, Leo Rowsome, Ronan Browne, Paddy Moloney, and Liam O’Flynn; fiddlers Tommy Peoples, James Kelly, and Larry Redican; the singing McPeake and Clancy families; and an East Mayo school class filled with children learning about traditional music.

The next area of Ceol focuses on retelling the history of both Ireland and its music in roughly 45 minutes. There are five interactive computer towers equipped with touchscreens for easy access to various periods, running from prehistory up to the present day.

Instruments dominate Ceol’s third area. Fiddle, flute, uilleann pipes, tin whistle, button accordion, and concertina are recorded in such a way that listeners can step forward into a fuller sound for any one of them — and step back to hear them all blend. Parabolic speakers fitted into metal domes enable visitors to better sample the texture of each instrument. The performances are all first-rate, coming from the likes of Paddy Glackin, Liam O’Flynn, Paul McGrattan, and John Regan, and the sound reproduction is CD quality throughout.

Stories and oral histories fill the next area. In strong regional accents that required subtitling on film, elders spiritedly and sometimes amusingly recall how traditional music affected their lives. Their memories fall into three general categories: music coming back on 78s from America, house dances, and the arrival of music by radio (usually battery-powered at first) into their homes. One man remembered the thrill of first hearing Westmeath’s Michael Grogan playing the button accordion on the radio, while another chuckled at how strange it was to hear someone singing in French over the airwaves.

Off to the side of this story area is a locked room that houses the electronics driving everything in Ceol, and Bradshaw offers me a peek inside.

"This is the engine room," he told me, and he wasn’t kidding. It’s high-tech hardware heaven: six servers, 62 audiovisual outputs, audio on Fostex hard disks or solid states. None of the components has moving parts. Everything is digitized and to full broadcast specification. I was gazing at over £500,000 worth of gear, "the most modern of its type in Europe," Bradshaw said.

Moving from behind the scenes to the scenes themselves again, we enter an area devoted to the many types of Irish music: jigs, reels, hornpipes, slow airs, slides, etc. East Galway, East and West Clare, Donegal-Ulster, Kerry, and other regional styles of playing these musical forms were also carefully delineated through field recordings. Martin Hayes, Tony Linnane, and Joe Ryan illustrate Clare music, for example, while the harmonica-playing Murphy family demonstrates distinctive sounds from Wexford.

For kids, the sixth area of Ceol is the most popular. Dubbed "Child’s Play," it’s a clever, well-conceived weave of education and entertainment, the serious and the intentionally silly. Inside are musical jigsaws and a quiz pitting kids’ musical knowledge against a computer’s. (Happily, no IBM "Big Blue" takes on the tykes, who often beat the machine.) Kids can manipulate a mechanized flute whose mouthpiece is attached to an air compressor. They can also step on musical floor pads to create rudimentary tunes on an instrument of their choice, or touch a screen to get the floor pads to light up and play a preprogrammed tune at a high level of proficiency.

Another fun feature of "Child’s Play" is a computerized cartoon music shop inhabited by a whimsical shop owner and his dog. Seen in the shop are various instruments that, with the help of a touchscreen, can be made to play. To the sound of a fiddle, the dog wags its tail. To the sound of the pipes, the same dog howls. "Not exactly a pipes lover," quipped Bradshaw.

The seventh area concentrates on Ireland’s rich song tradition, and 24 singers were filmed for a presentation lasting up to 90 minutes. Love, politics, comedy, exile: these are some of the topics covered by the singers, whose faces are shown in TV screens perched atop sitting robotic sculptures. Each of these automatons has loudspeakers built into the top of its shoulders, and someone taking a solo is "lit up" while the other faces in the screens "watch." The intention here is obviously to envelop the visitor in a singing session. But the use of these robotic figures is a little jarring, as if you stumbled into a sci-fi flick populated by creatures half sean-nós singer, half "Terminator."

Two interconnected dance galleries fare far better. Visitors in this area can get a worm’s-eye view of hard-shoe stepdancing, filmed from the bottom up through Plexiglas, and sample different styles of Irish dancing: set, céilí, stepdancing, sean-nós stepdancing, and "Riverdance." An instructor on film teaches particular steps, such as the Eight-Hand Jig and the Caledonian Set, and visitors can strut their newly learned steps on a wooden dance floor sandwiched between two huge mirrors and set against the back projection of a dance already in progress.

"These dancers never get tired," Bradshaw said of those whirling across the screen. All told, there are two hours of dance material depicted here, including different set dances from around Ireland and children taking lessons in a dance school.

The ninth area is a tribute to the venerable collectors of Irish traditional music, such as Edward Bunting (1773-1843), George Petrie (1790-1866), and Francis O’Neill (1848-1936), the Bantry-born Chicago police chief whose name graces the hotel. Also in this area is "the debate," the age-old clash between purism and innovation within the tradition. Forty people were interviewed on the subject, and many of their remarks make for lively listening in two 18-minute programs. "It would be dead if it weren’t evolving," Leitrim-born fiddler, pianist, and composer Charlie Lennon says of the Irish musical tradition. Outspoken Sligo-born flutist Séamus Tansey disagrees, fulminating about "the mongrelization of Irish music" today.

Ceol essentially culminates in the main auditorium, the 10th area, a 120-seat venue where "Ceol: The Music of the People" is shown. It’s a breathtaking 18-minute film on large, wraparound screens with 360-degree, ambisonic sound. Bradshaw took a 14-man crew on the road for 11 days to capture traditional music where it is played: in the pubs, parlors, kitchens, and dance halls of Ireland. He also hired a helicopter pilot to take some dazzling, dizzying footage of the landscape inspiring the music seen and heard. Flying through cliff crevices, swooping through valleys and between hills, this "kamikaze pilot," as Bradshaw describes him, provides an exhilarating visual ride that heightens the audience’s sensation of being "in" the film.

Out of the air and back on the ground, that sensation is no more acutely felt than in a crowded seisiún inside Shoot the Crows pub, Sligo Town."I hid 25 microphones for that scene," Bradshaw said. The sound is extraordinary, faithfully capturing the pressed-in fury of the playing, led by Dervish seated in a corner.

Pepper’s pub in Feakle, Co. Clare, was the site of another seisiún going full blast. Altan fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh is filmed playing in the Glen Tavern, Glenties, Co. Donegal. Sliabh Luachra accordionist Johnny O’Leary is seen performing in Knocknagree, Co. Cork, for what Bradshaw says are arguably the best set dancers in the country. Also filmed are Fermanagh singer Rosie Stewart as well as Tulla, Co. Clare, concertinist Mary MacNamara, who plays in her kitchen.

The final area of Ceol, perhaps an unavoidable anticlimax following the film, is entitled "Finding the Music." It offers practical information on festivals, schools, workshops, archives, and concerts of traditional music that visitors can pursue after they leave.

Even Ceol Shop, stocked with hundreds of CDs, videos, and books, has to meet Bradshaw’s acid test of authenticity. "No rubbish here," he said, pointing to releases by many of the artists I had just seen and heard in the 11 presentation areas.

Lasting impression

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